Using and understanding shade in the garden

People often ask me, :What can I grow in areas of reduced light in my yard?” The good news is that there’s a wide selection of beautiful shade-loving plants that can add colour and interest to darker areas of your garden. In fact, these underused spots can become refreshing havens when summer temperatures climb. Here are some tips to help you shape up your shade:

Know your shade.


Not all shade areas are created equal. It’s important to know what kind of shade you have so you’ll know which plants you can grow there.

The amount of moisture is another factor to consider—some shady areas are moist woodland environments, while others are extremely dry. Look for plants that are adapted to the moisture level in your shade garden.

The time of day that shade hits your plants is also important. Some plants like morning shade, while others do better with some afternoon shade. In warmer climates, afternoon sun is especially hard on shade-loving plants. Hydrangeas, azaleas, and hostas struggle when exposed to four or more hours of western sun, while they seem less bothered with the same amount of morning light. Avoid placing broadleaf plants in these settings. Instead, try drought-tolerant, partial-shade ground covers that tolerate full sun at the end of the day, such as barrenwort (Epimedium spp., Zones 4 to 9, depending on species), mondo grass (Ophiopogon japonicus, Zones 7 to 10), and creeping lilyturf (Liriope spicata, Zones 6 to 10).

Raise the shades.


To bring more light to a gloomy area, try a technique I call “raising the shades.” Trim lower branches of trees and shrubs to allow more angled, filtered light into the understory. Prune the plants carefully to maintain a natural, balanced look, removing no more than a third of the branches at one time.

Readjust your thinking.


In order to have a beautiful shade garden, you need to let go of the idea that every plant in your garden must bloom. Woodland plants tend to be a bit more understated than those found in bright, sunny spots, but that doesn’t mean your shade garden needs to be boring. Vary the height, leaf colour, and texture of your plantings. Look for plants with interesting foliage, like coral bells (Heuchera spp., Zones 3 to 9, depending on species) and Japanese painted fern (Athyrium niponicum var. pictum, Zones 3 to 8), and ones with interesting texture, such as the puckered leaves of ‘Sum and Substance’ hosta (Zones 3 to 8).

Create a dramatic focal point.


An eye-catching object in a darkened area makes a powerful visual hook. A brightly painted bench, statue, or ornament adds interest to an otherwise overlooked area of the garden. A collection of colourful chairs in a shady spot makes a delightful refuge on a hot summer day.

Fill in with bright colours and variegated patterns.


A tried and true way of brightening dimly lit areas is to add plants with light-colored flowers or foliage that is either striped, splotched, veined, or marked in contrasting colors. Keep in mind that while some variegated plants can add interest, too many can be overwhelming. They look best when you arrange several of the same plant in a group, giving the impression that a shaft of light has illuminated a few plants.

Go bold.


Delicate foliage and flowers don’t stand out in shady areas. For dramatic impact, choose plants with large blooms, bold leaves, and strong forms. A mix of bold and fine foliage helps draw attention to both. Flowering shrubs also add interest, including bigleaf hydrangeas (Hydrangea macrophylla, Zones 5 to 9), Virginia sweetspire (Itea virginica, Zones 6 to 9), and ‘Rainbow’ fetterbush (Leucothoe fontanesiana ‘Rainbow’, Zones 5 to 8).

Add dimension.


Impatiens are the classic flowering annual for shady areas. They’re a popular choice because they’re easy to grow and bloom all summer. I plant New Guinea impatiens in large drifts to make a strong statement. To give the composition more interest, I use light, medium, and dark blooms in the same series and color family to create more depth. For example, when planting a large bed of pink impatiens, I mix one-fourth light pink, one-fourth dark pink, and half medium pink. This animates the planting and keeps it from looking flat and one-dimensional.

Plant containers.


Roots are often a problem when planting under shade trees. Instead of digging holes and risking damage to delicate tree roots, fill several large containers with shade-loving plants. Colourful pots bring the plants closer to eye level where you can appreciate them even more. Select a container that suits the overall style or mood of your shaded garden. For instance, use a lattice-patterned terra-cotta pot for a cottage garden or a large urn for an elegant Victorian garden.

Add a water feature.


The sparkle and flash of water and its cheerful sounds bring energy and movement into your shade garden. It could be water bubbling over stones or a mere splash of water spilling over the lip of an earthenware jug. Even a simple reflecting pool adds mystery, and will attract toads and frogs to your shady niche.

What kind of shade do you have?


Some parts of your garden have light or partial shade, which means plants receive filtered sun or get direct sun for only a few hours. This type of shade is where most shade-loving plants do best.

Full shade means plants don’t get direct sun during the day, but they do receive “reflected light.” This is the type of shade found under the canopy of a mature tree. Some shade lovers that thrive in partial shade will also grow in full shade, but their bloom time or plant size may be affected.

Heavy shade is an area that gets almost no direct light (under a deck, for example). Very little will grow here, so it’s best to add a layer of attractive mulch.

Adding art to the garden

Why do artful objects—such as sculptures, architectural artefacts, and birdbaths—have such an impact in the landscape? Like adding jewellery to a little black dress, or a few bright pillows to a tired sofa, art and ornamentation improve the garden’s composition.

Garden decor should provide delight, but it shouldn’t compete with your plants. A well-placed sculpture adds to, rather than detracts from, the border’s appearance. Precious objects displayed side by side with foliage and flowers—or partially hidden among the stems and branches of a favourite plant—give a garden its personality. They also communicate volumes about the gardener’s own tastes and style.

While there is no right or wrong in something as subjective as choosing artwork for your garden, the general rules of scale and proportion, placement and balance, and harmonious composition are useful guidelines.

Scale and proportion

Think of scale as the “heft” of materials, shapes, and forms, especially as your garden relates to your home. Evaluate your home’s architecture and use it as a guide to selecting related artwork and ornaments. For example, a Victorian-style home is often feminine in feeling, finished with delicate millwork and highly detailed trim. A contemporary home may be more geometric and massive, with a presence that overwhelms the landscape. A one-story brick ranch house is low to the ground, evoking the idea of midcentury modernity.

Each of these styles requires compatible ornamentation in the garden. A trellis with 2-inch by 2-inch latticework is fitting for a Victorian entry garden, while a beefy arbor with 6-inch by 6-inch posts makes sense for a contemporary home.

Don’t choose garden art that gets dwarfed by the scale of your home. Follow the landscape’s cues, such as the height of the residence or mature trees, rather than sticking close to “human scale.” When selecting columns, urns, and trellises, think big—remember, the sky is your limitless ceiling and large-scale pieces can hold their own in the garden.

I learned this lesson recently when a designer helped me sketch out a rose arbor that I wanted to attach to the side of my house.

I envisioned the top of the arbor fitting beneath the first-story windows, which are about 10 feet off the ground. In my drawings, the structure looked squat and oddly suited for the space. The designer encouraged me to raise the top of the arbor to rest above the windows, adding a decorative panel that emulates my home’s Arts-and-Crafts architecture and ties home and garden together.

Proportion is a close relative to scale. A single cherub appears lonely and out of proportion in a woodland garden, but a pair of cherubs, perched on twin rocks at different levels, conveys a definite sense of presence. If you absolutely love an antique birdcage, but it’s too small for your perennial border, place it on a 2-foot concrete pedestal. Or use a favorite technique of interior designers: Group like-minded smaller objects together to fill a larger space. This works well with pots, plaques, or a collection of unusual watering cans.

Placement and Balance

Where you place artwork says volumes about its role in the landscape. A blue-glazed, Ali Baba-sized urn might be fine at the bottom of your porch steps, but looks fantastic when placed in a border at the perimeter of your garden, juxtaposed against a golden-foliaged tree or shrub.

As you stand in the garden, use your eye as a guide. What earns your notice? Is it a bare spot underneath a 15-foot-tall Japanese maple? Why not place an Asian-inspired lantern at its base, or a dish rock to capture rainfall and reflect the sky?

As in fashion and fine art, balance can be symmetrical or asymmetrical, depending upon the mood and style of your garden. Formal gardens usually call for symmetrical touches. Flank the beginning of a pathway with two columns, inviting visitors to further explore the garden’s delights. Centre formally placed fountains or sculptures in the lawn, rather than tucking them to the side.

Informal gardens have a carefree nature that allows for asymmetrical balance. This technique is rooted in the fine-art concept of the French Third, also called the Golden Mean, in which an artist would divide a canvas into the foreground, the horizon, and the sky (each section filling approximately one-third of the painting).

In your garden, place artwork with a ratio of one-third to two-thirds. Once you’ve divided a vignette into these proportions, you’ll see that the fanciful obelisk should be placed in the one-third side, offsetting an equally important grouping of perennials or flowering shrubs on the two-thirds side. As with anything creative, this approach is subjective. It’s what your eye sees and what pleases you that matters.

Harmonious Composition

This section could also be titled “It’s my style and I’m sticking to it.” As you adorn the garden with nonplant objects, unify your selections. Choose materials, finishes, and objects that relate to your home’s style and to each other. This approach takes discipline, because we gardeners are easily wooed by beautiful objects.

I know one gardener who buys only containers finished in turquoise-coloured glaze, which reflects the verdigris patina of the weathered copper pieces in her Victorian-style garden. Similarly, the creator of a tropical garden filled with oversized phormiums and cannas is drawn to rusted iron and natural terra cotta. From finial-topped trellises in rusted iron to a birdbath and paving stones in terra cotta, her gardening accessories work well together—and with her garden’s style.

Extend this harmony to plant choices, making sure the artwork you select looks compatible with nearby plants. I noticed an inspiring example of this on a recent garden tour. Nesting among a mass planting of black mondo grasses (Ophiopogon planiscapus ‘Nigrescens’) was a 10-inch silver gazing ball. Everyone who noticed this little composition stopped to snap a photo and comment on its brilliance. The plant-artwork pairing was graphic and metallic and unforgettable.

Editing Tips

Returning to the idea of accessorising that little black dress, I recall something a professor said in one of my fashion design courses in college: Once you think you’ve designed the perfect outfit, take one thing away.

Smart design calls for a dose of restraint. Like removing the extra bracelet so the necklace and earrings draw attention to your face, take a walk through your garden and look for clutter you can eliminate. Where can you take away a distracting piece of art and instead let the surrounding plantings sing their song?
Strive to add extraordinary pieces to your garden and take away objects that don’t distinguish themselves. There certainly is room for kitsch—

I experience joy each time I see the student-made ceramic “totem” I purchased at my son’s school auction. But it’s placed in the kitchen garden, which is the ideal spot for a playful, childlike piece of artwork.

Give your garden an air of sophistication, a sense of harmony, and a touch of restraint. Allow some objects to take center stage, with others in a supporting role. Well-placed objects will enhance your garden’s beauty and reflect your personal style.

How to get a cheap bird feeder

It’s no secret that the economy has slowed down in recently months.  Gas and grocery prices are up, and we’re all looking for ways to save a buck.  So what’s a backyard bird watcher to do when it’s time to refill the bird feeder with expensive seed?  Resourceful bird lovers can continue to attract birds without breaking the bank with these tips from National Wildlife Federation’s naturalist and backyard wildlife expert David Mizejewski.

1. Plant natural feeders.


Birds only use feeders to supplement the natural foods they find in the landscape, so focus of your bird-feeding efforts on your plants even in good economic times.  Plants feed birds with seeds, berries, nuts, sap and nectar as well as shelter and nesting places.  Once planted, they’ll provide free bird food for years to come.

2. Say no to insecticides.


Before you reach for the bug killer think about this: 96 percent of bird species in North America feed their babies insects.  Most adult birds rely on insects as a source of protein too, but even those that primarily eat plant foods as adults still feed their young insects, including hummingbirds.  Make sure you have plenty of insect life for the birds by going organic and eliminating insecticides.  Let the birds control the insects for you.

3. Go native.


Native plants that grow naturally in your area provide birds with the foods they’ve been eating for thousands of years and thrive in local soils and weather.  Many exotic plants don’t provide seeds or fruits that birds can eat and those that do have become invasive pests.  Native plants also support up to 60 percent more insects than exotics and therefore more birds.  Luckily, many natives are ornamental and commercially available.

4. Attract birds with water. 

Even if you can’t provide food, a simple bird bath with clean water will attract plenty of birds to your yard.  Replace the water every three days to keep the bath clean and to avoid mosquito problems.

5. Free food.

Make your own suet by recycling bacon grease. Next time you fry up a batch of bacon, pour the grease into a plastic container and freeze it. You can then put it out in a suet cage or mesh onion bags as a high calorie treat for birds such as woodpeckers, jays and chickadees. Saving the plastic packages from store-bought suet and using them again to make your own will save you even more.

6. Buy in bulk.


If you are addicted to watching the constant activity of birds visiting your feeders, consider buying seed in bulk to save some cash.  Avoid seed blends which often have “filler” seeds that most birds toss aside and feed black-oil sunflower seed, which all feeder birds relish.  Store seed in a metal container with a secure lid to keep moisture and other critters out.

7. Grow your own feeders. 


Plant sunflowers instead of buying expensive sunflower seed.  The flowers look beautiful and also provide nectar for bees and other beneficial insects.  In the fall, cut the flower heads and hang them in the yard as home-grown bird feeders.